What the Hell Does Authentic Mean, Anyway?

While eating leftover hot and sour soup for breakfast this morning, (it really is good, you should try it) I mused over something I read while researching soup recipes the other day.

I was looking at various hot and sour soup recipes, trying to see if any chefs used Sichuan peppercorns, galangal and lemongrass in their recipes as I do in mine. While looking through my books, I found one author who stated that it is absolutely impossible to make an authentic hot and sour soup in the United States, because one must go without the crucial ingredient of coagulated duck’s blood (Ellen Schrecker, Mrs. Chiang’s Szechwan Cookbook, page 264.) Indeed, in looking through Lee Hwa Lin’s Chinese Cuisine: Szechwan Style, put out by the Wei Chuan Cooking School in Taiwan, the hot and sour soup recipe definitely features duck’s blood, as the fifth ingredient, in fact, right there on page 83.

Fuchsia Dunlop tells us on page 329 of Land of Plenty that hot and sour soup is a banquet dish which uses many different expensive ingredients such as a certain kind of pig tendon and sea cucumber, which relies upon black pepper for its heat. While Fuchsia makes no mention of the duck’s blood, a photograph in Ken Hom’s The Taste of China clearly shows cubes of the duck’s blood, which he calls “blood sausage,” paired with fresh chili peppers, which he tells us is destined to be made into hot and sour soup. Martin Yan, in Martin Yan’s Culinary Journey Through China, also ignores the “fact” that black pepper is always used to spice up the soup and uses chili sauce instead, while also throwing in some lemongrass, just for fun.

Deh-Ta Hsiung’s Chinese Regional Cooking lists no duck blood in the recipe, nor makes any mention of black pepper being the traditional “heating element” in the dish, (which nearly every other author declares is the case), but instead uses Sichuan peppercorns exclusively to give the soup heat. Barbara Tropp, on page 450 of The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, presents a Chinese Muslim version of the soup, which does indeed use black pepper as the hot part of the hot and sour, but which eschews pork, pork broth and duck blood in favor of beef and chicken broth. She declares this version to be the best version of the soup she ever tasted.

All of this contradictory information brings up the question of what exactly does it mean to make an “authentic” hot and sour soup?

What the hell does “authentic” mean, anyway? Is it authentic if it does not have duck blood? Is it authentic if it is vegetarian? Is it authentic if it tastes like the hot and sour soup you grew up eating in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant? Is it authentic if it is made by someone from China? Is it authentic if it is made with chile peppers and no black pepper? What about Sichuan peppercorns?

The dictionary definition of authentic which I think most people would argue is the correct one to deal with when we are talking about food is the second definition, which is, “conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features.”

Houston, there is a problem.

The problem with that definition when it comes to hot and sour soup is this: how do we determine what the “original” version of the soup is? Do we look for the first recorded version of it? Fine. Do we look for the first recorded version of it in Chinese? How about English, as I don’t speak Chinese, much less read it? And, well, even if I -did- read it, how do we know that the first “written” recipe is the “correct” one? What if the chef who invented it didn’t write it down, but it was passed down orally, and then changed before it was written down. Or, what if the person who wrote it down changed it?

That is why I think that particular definition for “authentic” is a rather shaky one to use in relation to food.

Authenticity, when it comes to food, is a concept that I wrestle with all the damned time. I wrestle with it because when it comes to cooking ethnic cuisine, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on making food that conforms to expectations of flavor that is generally thought of as belonging with a particular ethnic culture. There are certain flavors or ingredients that can be jarring when introduced into ethnic dishes, which take these dishes completely out of their origins. On the other hand, there are flavors which do the exact opposite–they can raise a dish to the sublime, and accurately reflect the cuisine while still showing an individual cook’s own personal innovation.

Stubbornly striving for authenticity can lead to the idea that cuisine is static, that there is one “true recipe” for any given dish, which is simply untrue. Every chef and every home cook takes a recipe and makes it her or his own, and it is these personal touches which enliven a cuisine and make it “real.” It is innovation as much as tradition that keeps a cuisine alive and vital.

People seem to have an idea of what Chinese food is that I sometimes think is based more on the past than on the present. In reading about his tour through China in the 1990’s, I am struck by Ken Hom’s admission of surprise that many foods he had thought of as foreign to China such as corn and potatoes, were widely integrated into Chinese cuisine. He also tells of the great diversity of foods that he ate in his travels including a Mongolian-influenced dish of pan-fried goat cheese which he had north of Beijing! He also noted that tomatoes, which had only been introduced to China about one hundred years ago, were enthusiastically eaten and enjoyed all over the country, and had been integrated so thoroughly into the cuisine that it seemed as if they had always been there. (I highly recommend his book, The Taste of China, which, though it is out of print, is widely available used on Amazon and elsewhere.)

Chinese food is more than we think it is.

So, looking at it that way, is Martin Yan’s hot and sour soup less authentic than other chef’s because he adds lemongrass? Is Deh-Ta Hsiung wrong to use Sichuan peppercorn rather than the more standard black pepper? Did I go to far in adding galangal?

I don’t think so–I think that rigidly stating that the only truly authentic hot and sour soup in the world has duck blood in it and certainly not lemongrass is promoting food snobbery and is ultimately detrimental to the understanding that cuisines develop and grow over time. The food that is made by a Sichuanese chef who has immigrated to Huntington, West Virginia, is never going to taste exactly the same as the food a Sichuanese chef makes in Chengdu, because even if the same condiments are used, the basic ingredients are going to come from a different place, and thus have different flavors.

I think that striving blindly for authenticity is a red herring when it comes to cookery, but I also do not advocate the fad for fusion cuisine where ingredients are thrown together willy-nilly without any seeming sense or reason. Often ingredients are combined with no knowledge of or respect for the traditions of their use in the cuisines from which they are taken, and the result is an unfocused mishmash of jarring flavors. This leads to food that is lacking in depth, character and cultural relevance.

I believe that the most successful fusions come from someone who has studied the culinary traditions of various cultures enough to know how ingredients are used and can then adapt them to other uses. It is easier to comfortably and successfully combine flavors and ingredients into coherent dishes when one understands the traditional uses of these ingredients and can find cultural similarity and work within that context.

The fifth definition of “authentic” in Merriam-Webster, “true to one’s personality or character,” is the one most suited when discussing food.

If a dish is true to the spirit of the cuisine, then it is authentic.

If a hot and sour soup is both hot and sour, and is firmly based within the spirit of Chinese cooking, then it doesn’t matter if it has duck blood, sea cucumber, pork, beef, chiles, black pepper, lemongrass or Sichuan peppercorns in it or not.

What matters is that it is true to the spirit of Chinese cookery.

Now, of course, the next question is–how does one determine what the spirit of Chinese cookery is?

When I figure it out, I will be sure and tell you.

For now, I guess we will all have to fumble around and answer that question for ourselves.


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  1. I’ve just recently blundered onto your blog (via “Too Many Chefs”) and I must say, I do like your style, Barbara. It’s my feeling that the authentic hot and sour soup is the one that meets the expectations of those who are eating it. How’s that for loosey goosey??

    So if this can be achieved by substituting something for unavailable duck’s blood and still not have the taste compromised then it’s authentic….

    (Besides, there must be as many recipes for authentic hot and sour soup as there are authentic Chinese people.)


    Comment by ejm — March 11, 2005 #

  2. Well you also have to think of the fact that even “authentic” Chinese food didn’t all come from China. There has been foreign rule enough times, one would assume Mongol and Manchurian dishes were intergrated into the culture at some point (though my history class didn’t so much focus on food – good thing because I tend to get hungry in the middle of it as it is).

    Comment by Karyl — March 11, 2005 #

  3. Hello, Elizabeth! I remember you from Too Many Chefs.

    I think that your “loosey goosey” definition of authentic in relation to food is a pretty good one.

    And yes, I think that there are probably many very different regional and personal variations on authentic hot and sour soup recipes out there.

    Hello, Karyl–nice to meet you!

    The goat cheese dish I mentioned in the post is common in the north of China and it is most certainly Mongolian in origin.

    One thing that most Americans forget or simply do not know, is that China is very ethnically diverse. In addition to the Mongolian and Manchurian influences on the cuisine, you have many different tribal people, such as the Hakka, whose cuisines are distinctive, yet, still Chinese.

    The study of Chinese cuisines is a subject that will probably engage me for the rest of my life, and I still will not learn all there is to know. There will always be something new for me to study.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 12, 2005 #

  4. Hm… is this not the Barbara I know then? I suppose it’s silly of me to think everyone linked on Bryian’s blog is someone I’ve met, considering how many people he knows. Of course it would help if I remembered that Barbara is only her SCA name.

    Er, anyway, for some reason I woke up thinking about it again, and even thinking of food we consider so essentially “American” tends to come from other places. Hamburgers… those are one of those foods that gets identified with the US all the time. Though why I woke up thinking of hamburgers I will never know.

    Comment by Karyl — March 12, 2005 #

  5. We’ve been dealing recently with questions of “authenticity” in some work we were doing, and handled it by offering the original recipe and its source and then the recipe we redacted out of it. This experience taught us to tie the word “authentic” to a specific time and place. Take bread. We can’t say for sure when the first loaf of bread was ever made, which means we’ll never know what the original bread was like, but we can talk about “authentic San Francisco sourdough” because it ties the bread to a specific place, and to a reasonably narrow time.

    Comment by Noddy — March 12, 2005 #

  6. Nope, I am not in SCA anymore, though I may be sucked back into it once we move back to Athens, if nothing else, for the fencing.

    It is no surprise that American foods “come from somewhere else.” The US is a country made up almost entirely of immigrants and the decendants of immigrants, all of whom brought their own foods, cooking traditions and tastes across the Atlantic or Pacific with them.

    Most typical American cookery, particularly that of the Northeast, is British in origin, though in the Midwest, you have a lot of foods with a strong German influence as well. In the South, you have strong African and French influences, and in New Orleans and Louisiana, you have African, French, Spanish, English and German influences all melted together in a glorious melange of wonderfulness.

    In the Northern Plains, you have Norwegian and Swedish influences, in the Southwest, Spanish and Native American. In the far West, in California, you have Chinese and Japanese influences.

    All over the country, you have Native American influences, particularly when it comes to the native foods of North and South America: corn, beans and squash, turkey, tomatoes, chiles, cranberries, wild rice and potatoes are all native foods which to greater and lesser extents changed the way in which everyone in the world eats.

    Hey, Noddy:

    I would add to your definition of “authenticity” that a dish can be “authentic” to a specific time and place, and perhaps, to a specific ethnicity or individual cook.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 13, 2005 #

  7. I very much agree with you (although I must admit, when it comes to ‘dead’ cuisine it gets a little contentious) ;-D

    Eee! You were in the SCA too? [though you probably guessed it from my blog] Laff! Such a small world.

    I have run out and bought the Ken Hom book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Comment by Christina — March 18, 2005 #

  8. Yes, I, too, in a former life, was a Scadian and have done my share of feasts.

    Not too surprised to hear that you were, too.

    Let me know what you think of that book, Christina. I really enjoyed it.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 18, 2005 #

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